New England Patriots

Nov 20, 2021; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Missouri Tigers running back Tyler Badie (1) runs the ball as Florida Gators cornerback Kaiir Elam (5) chases in overtime at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
  • Running back may not be an immediate need for the Patriots, but it’s not a position to ignore in the draft either. Despite the level of urgency in any given year, the Patriots generally favor adding to their backfield to the draft rather than in free agency.

    Under Bill Belichick, they’ve drafted a running back in 11 of 22 drafts. That trend has ramped up recently, with three players selected from the position in the last four years (Sony Michel in 2018, Damien Harris in 2019, and Rhamondre Stevenson last year). Since 2010, four of the six backs they’ve drafted were selected in the top 100.

    The team splits the position into two roles – early down backs (ex. Antowain Smith, LeGarrette Blount, Sony Michel, Damien Harris) and pass-catching backs (ex. Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, James White). Some players can do both (ex. Rex Burkhead) but they generally seem to like to have two backs for each spot on the roster at any given time.

    While there may not be an immediate need in 2022, the Patriots could look to stay ahead of things at both running back spots. Damien Harris is entering a contract year, and James White just turned 30 and is working his way back from a severe hip injury. The team could need to replace both players in the near future.

    As it relates to the draft this year, we’ll use two qualifiers to sort out the class – role and expected draft range. Will the Pats’ jump early on an impact back? Or wait and try to find value in a deep class?

  • Second-round early-down backs

    Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III avoids a tackle by Michigan’s R.J. Moten during his touchdown run during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. (Nick King/Lansing State Journal/USA Today Network)

    There aren’t any projected first-round running backs in the draft this year, so for all intents and purposes this is the ‘reach’ category. If the Patriots are going to make a splash at running back, these are the guys.

    Three players sit at the top of the running back board with a chance to be the first player selected at the position. The lone primary early-down back among the group is Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker, who’s outstanding 2021 season had him in the conversation for the Heisman trophy.

    Walker was the focal point of the Spartans’ offense after transferring from Wake Forest last season, rushing for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns. He plays much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 211 pound frame suggests, but at the same time he can run around defenders as well as he can run through them. But the aspect of his game the Patriots’ may like more than anything else? He fumbled just one time in 276 touches last year.

  • Second-round pass-catching backs

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 18: Running back Breece Hall #28 of the Iowa State Cyclones runs against the UNLV Rebels during the first half of a game at Allegiant Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

    The other two backs in contention to be the first off the board are Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller and Iowa State’s Breece Hall. Spiller presents a more NFL-ready, low risk option while Hall’s stock is tied more into upside.

    Spiller was a three-year starter at A&M, and surpassed 1,000 all-purpose yards in each of those seasons. While his production is impressive overall, he was inconsistent as times – as was the entire Texas A&M program during his tenure. He’s a very patient runner with good vision – the kind of back who would work well behind the Patriots’ current offensive line. As a receiver, his route tree isn’t expansive but he can be effective in what he does out of the backfield.

    After a complementary role as a freshman in 2019, Hall exploded onto the scene with back-to-back 1,700-yard, 23-touchdown seasons for the cyclones. He’s a big-play threat both running the ball and as a pass catcher, with NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein comparing him to Matt Forte. The real question will be how teams view his collegiate workload of exactly 800 touches. Will they be impressed he was that involved while never missing a game? Or will it be a red flag that he’s already taken that many hits at 20 years old?

  • Third-round early-down backs

    Nov 20, 2021; Athens, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Zamir White (3) runs for a touchdown against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers during the first quarter at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    This draft isn’t as deep on early-down backs as it is on pass catching backs, especially in the middle rounds. Our lone player in this category is Zamir White of Georgia, and this really is his ceiling.

    While is as physical runner as you’ll find in this class, and makes his mark carrying the ball between the tackles. He’s also a strong locker room presence – he was a captain for the Bulldogs in 2021 and is described as a “weight-room warrior.”

    However, his contributions at the next level will likely be limited to early downs, and he’s torn both ACLs (his right one in 2017 and left in 2018). Those factors could put a damper on his draft stock.

  • Third-round pass-catching backs

    Sep 18, 2021; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Brian Robinson Jr. (4) runs with the ball as Florida Gators safety Trey Dean III (0) defends during the first quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    This is where this draft gets really interesting at the running back position. There’s a number of talented, high-upside well-rounded receiving backs expected to go in the bottom half of the top-100.

    We’ll start with White’s counterpart in the Georgia backfield, James Cook. The brother of Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, James handled the passing down running back responsibilities for Georgia this year. He caught 27 passes for 284 yards, and his straight-line speed allows him to be a big-play threat out of the backfield. At the same time, Georgia occasionally lined him up outside the formation as a receiver, where he also found success.

    Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams was also heavily used as a receiver in 2021, lining up in the slot in a number of packages. He totaled 42 catches for 359 yards and three scores, while also gaining over 1,000 yards on the ground from the backfield. Initially, it seemed as though he’d be in the mix to be a top-60 pick, but a 4.65 second 40 – the slowest by any back in the class this year – may have dropped him down at least a round. The Patriots met with Williams at the Combine.

    Also expected to go in this range in Brian Robinson of Alabama. He’s the most well-rounded of this group, rushing for 1,343 yards and catching 35 passes in his lone year as the feature back for the Crimson Tide in 2021. In addition to his versatility, Robinson brings size to the position at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. With special teams experience on his resume as well, he could be a fit for a Rex Burkhead-type role.

  • Day 3 early-down backs

    PROVO, UT – OCTOBER 30: Tyler Allgeier #25 of the BYU Cougars breaks a tackle attempt by Joey Blount #29 of the Virginia Cavaliers during their game October 30, 2021 at the LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

    We’re now getting out of ‘stretch’ range and into more realistic possibilities for the Patriots. Even though they’ve tended to take running backs in the top 100 in recent years, the roster needs right now could deprioritize the position come the draft.

    Tyler Allgeier instantly stands out as a Patriots fit for an early-down role because of his size. The BYU back stands 5-foot-11 and weighed in at 224 pounds at the combine. Yet at that size, he’s very smooth getting in and out of cuts for a player his size, which gives him some big play ability. In 2021, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry on 150 carries. That number dropped a bit in 2021 with a bigger workload, but he was still productive rushing for 1,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games, finishing four games with over 190 rushing yards. He had 218 yards against Utah State, 191 against Washington State, 266 against Virginia (with five touchdowns), and 192 against UAB in the Independence Bowl.

    Another player that stands out in this group is Michigan running back Hassan Haskins. As part of a platoon backfield with Blake Corum this fall, Haskins managed a breakout season rushing for 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds he’s a bowling-ball back that wears down the defense with hit after hit to open things up in the fourth quarter. He’s also very effective on the goal line.

  • Day 3 pass-catching backs

    Nov 20, 2021; Columbia, Missouri, USA; Missouri Tigers running back Tyler Badie (1) runs the ball as Florida Gators safety Rashad Torrence II (22) misses the tackle in overtime at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Given the depth of pass-catching backs in this draft, there should be some real talent still on the board in Day 3. Could the Patriots look to make a minimal investment with major upside?

    If so, Tyler Badie of Missouri would be an excellent fit earlier on Day 3. Badie did it all for the Tigers last year. He was their feature back, rushing for 1,604 yards at 6.0 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns. At the same time, he had the most receptions of any back in this draft class with 54 for 330 yards. That wasn’t all out of the backfield, he lined up in the slot 61 times. Prior to 2021, Badie was also the team’s kick returner. On top of it all, Badie holds onto the football – he fumbled just twice on 513 career carries, and his 115 career catches without a fumble are the most by a Power Five running back since 2019.

    Later on Day 3, Oregon’s C.J. Verdell could be a fit. Verdell was a 1,000-yard rusher and 300-yard receiver at Oregon as a freshman in 2018, but has struggled with injuries the last two years. At one point viewed as a potential top-150 pick, he could present tremendous value outside of the top 200 if he stays healthy.

  • UDFA early-down backs

    Sep 25, 2021; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Rutgers Scarlet Knights running back Isaih Pacheco (1) rushes in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Not every early-down back has to be big. For instance Dion Lewis was used sparingly in the passing game in New England, only catching more than five passes just four times in his Patriots career. Yet his elusive running style made him a valuable asset to keep the offense ahead of schedule.

    At 5-foot-10, 216 pounds, Isiah Pacheco from Rutgers is slightly bigger than Lewis (5-foot-8, 195 pounds) but plays the game the same way. He’s a high motor runner – his legs are always moving and he makes defenders earn it if they want to bring him down on first contact. Inconsistent production in a platoon role for the Scarlet Knights limited his exposure (he ran fore more than 700 yards in a season just once, in 2019) but he put himself on the map with a 4.37 second 40 at the Combine, which was tied for the fastest time by a running back this year.

  • UDFA pass-catching backs

    WACO, TX -NOVEMBER 27: Trestan Ebner #1 of the Baylor Bears carries the ball past Colin Schooler #17 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the first half at McLane Stadium on November 27, 2021 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

    This year’s UDFA pass-catching market should be an active one. The Patriots generally bring in at least one UDFA back to camp, so this is an area to watch.

    Among the group, Baylor’s Trestan Ebner is the best fit for a number of reasons. He’s a converted all-state receiver who has five years of production on his resume. Ebner broke out in 2021, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. One of the faster players in this draft at the position, Ebner’s experience in Baylor’s pass-heavy offense would likely be a benefit if he was asked to pick up the complicated third-down back role in New England.

    On top of that, Ebner is also a two-time Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year as a kick returner. In 2020, Ebner averaged 32.2 yards per return (second in the nation) on 19 returns with two touchdowns. Those numbers dipped a bit but were still impressive in 2021, as he averaged 22.2 yards per return on 23 returns with another score. Ebner began returning punts in 2021 as well, averaging 8.1 yards on 19 returns.

    Washington State’s Max Borghi projects to be a passing-down-only back at the next level. He has the basics down for that role though as a solid pass catcher who holds onto the football – he even showed development as a blocker in 2021. Like Ebner, his experience in a pass-heavy offense will come in handy if he ends up in New England.

    Leddie Brown out of West Virginia was once viewed as a fringe top-100 pick after back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons for the Mountaineers. However, fumble issues and a 4.64 second 40 now have him projected to go undrafted. Brown is the kind of player who does just about everything well, but doesn’t have a standout trait. Still, the Patriots may see him as a value signing if he makes it to the UDFA market.